On New Year’s Day 2012, Florida Gators fans were likely worried about the future of the program as their team was getting ready to face Ohio State in a showdown of underperforming .500 teams in the Gator Bowl. Only the most optimistic among them could have imagined that exactly one year later, their Gators would be ranked No. 3 in the country and back in a BCS bowl game for the first time since the 2009 season.
Nevertheless, that is exactly what Florida is faced with on Wednesday, a big-time contest against the No. 21 Louisville Cardinals in what will no doubt be an exciting game for both fan bases.
For the Gators, a victory on Wednesday will be a near-perfect ending to a bounce back season. Florida undoubtedly hoped to have a chance at the national title but will instead be focused on putting the rubber stamp on a newfound toughness that Muschamp started instilling in the team during bowl practices one year ago.
“You can’t talk about it. You gotta be about it and you got to practice that way. And really going back to last season, I’ve said it going back looking at our training camp, I felt like we could have been more physical at practice. We were so lacking in depth, especially in the offensive line, one or two injuries could have put us in a really tough situation,” said Muschamp on Tuesday while recalling the situation last season.
“When we went into bowl practice last year for the Gator Bowl, I said, ‘Heck with it. This is what we’re going to do. If we have an injury, we have an injury, but we’re going to have to practice physical. You can’t talk about being physical. You can’t convince yourself you’re physical. You’ve got to practice that way. You’ve got to do it. And I think the most pleasing results from this year other than winning games for me has been winning the fourth quarter. And that’s a huge emphasis of the football team as we entered the season was to be successful in the fourth quarter.”
Muschamp is also proud of how the Gators’ defense, a top-10 unit a year ago, has become even more dominant and learned to create turnovers. Florida is No. 5 nationally in turnover margin having gained 29 and only lost 12 over the course of the season. That +17 margin represents a 25-turnover swing from 2011’s -12 margin, which ranked the Gators No. 113 out of 120 teams nationally.
“You really want to look at the difference in seasons, look at turnover margin,” he said. “That’s been the huge difference in our football season from this year to last year is turnover margin. Dan Quinn does an outstanding job coaching overall, but I think it’s much as anything, emphasizing turnovers and creating [turnovers]. … We’ve also been more of a ball control offense. We have not played as many snaps as we did a year ago defensively. So I think there’s a lot of factors that go into why we’ve played well and certainly depth is up there.”
Asked how Florida will go about taking down Louisville on Wednesday, Muschamp pointed to the Gators’ maturity as well as the coaching staff emphasizing on tackling, execution and special teams. He also dispelled any notion that Florida is not fully tuned in for the game just because it is against an opponent coming out of the Big East.
“I think that’s hogwash. I don’t think there’s anything to that at all,” he said. “I’ve seen our football team prepare and how they practiced and we’ve been physical and we’ve practiced and prepared the right way. We’ve been on time for everything. We’ve been totally in tune with what we’re trying to do.
“We’re playing a good football team. The films speak for itself. We have great respect for the opponent and at the end of the day, regardless of who we play, we take care of Florida. As long as we prepare the right way, which we have, we’ll play well.”
Preparation and superior coaching led the Gators to victory after victory during the regular season. Now all that is left to determine is if Florida can execute the way Muschamp wants one more time.